What is Athleticism?

Utah forward Jeremy Evans recently had this fantastic sequence of events.

A monstrous block, a mind-blowing dunk, and then a great hustle play to deflect a pass out of bounds, all in about 10 seconds. That was pretty cool to watch. But what I want to talk about, if I can put on my snobby, basketball purist hat, is how people are going to say things like “Evans is the most athletic player in the league!”

Athleticism is not all about who can jump the highest and run the fastest. (And I’m not just saying that because I have as many career dunks as Mike Penberthy.) Knowing angles, having a quick first step, and having exquisite body control all play a huge role in how “athletic” someone is.

Especially the body control aspect. Basketball is predicated on being able to execute broad, explosive movements while still maintaining the ability to make small tweaks and adjustments. Take, for example, this eurostep-into-floater by Dwyane Wade. It doesn’t look like much, especially because Portland isn’t offering any resistance defensively, but I think it is a good example of non-obvious athleticism on display.

(Come on Portland. That was just pathetic, especially by Wes Matthews, the man initially guarding Wade. He looks like someone doing an uninspired imitation of the worst defender he can think of. A weak stance, an anemic attempt to “fight” over the screen, and just general loafing around once Wade gets into the lane. That’s not 34 million dollars worth of effort, Mr. Matthews!)

Wade does everything in the video so casually that it doesn’t look that impressive, so let’s break it down in order to appreciate the subtle beauty of the move.

First, he uses a slight body fake to set his man up for the screen. It’s not even so much a body fake as it is a use of his eyes. He looks right for a split second, just long enough to convince Matthews he would go right. Also, that is the direction Matthews was trying to make him go. But that look to the right confuses Matthews, so all Wade has to do from there is cross over and Matthews gets hit by the screen. A less sophisticated player would have driven to the right side from the get go, because that is what was offered, but Wade was able to throw off the entire defensive set just by briefly faking to go right.

Once he is around the screen, it appears he is going to get all the way to the rim. He makes a left to right crossover and gathers the ball at the free throw line. All his momentum is taking him to the right side. His plants his right foot first in preparation for what looks to be a classic foray to the rim. That could easily work out for him. He is Dwyane Wade, after all. But all indications are that if he tries for a layup or dunk he would be met by 2 Portland big men.

Wade, whose brain is subconsciously rifling through god knows how many permutations for how to finish off this play, chooses to switch things up. Instead of placing his left foot ahead of and directly in line with his right, he decides to create space by taking his second step in the totally opposite direction. That constitutes the eurostep, and I’m telling you, that is not easy. Not just the footwork part, but the mental restraint to not keep hurtling his body toward the basket.

The position Wade is in when he picks up his dribble and starts his move is familiar to every basketball player. I have been there countless times, and in almost every instance I have been suckered in by the possibility of shooting a lay up. Most people are. That’s why if you go to watch an average middle school basketball game you will see 500 out of control attacks on the basket before you see a eurostep. Non sophisticated players, including those in the NBA, will recklessly attempt lay ups at all costs, thinking that closer is always better.

But it’s not. I have been rejected more than a high school dropout who applies to fortune 500 companies. I get blocked more than Tetris. I get blocked like annoying people on Twitter. I get swatted like flies in a horse stall. I get turned away like a guy who shows up at a Hollywood nightclub without a 300 dollar shirt on. I get turned away like a little kid watching a movie with his parents when something violent is about to happen. I get turned away at the rim like a guy who ventures too close to the edge on his tour of the grand canyon. Ok, that’s the best one. I’ll stop there.

Point is, it is hard to resist the allure of layups. Part of what makes Wade such a high level player is that he can make split second judgments on when to attack and when to use his midrange game. I will take a player with the ability to correctly assess complex situations and then execute with swiftness and precision before I sign someone with a 42 inch vertical.

Once Wade takes that step to the left he has created more than enough space to get his shot off. Aldridge is completely off balance and is in no position to contest the shot. Wade, on the other hand, despite having taken two powerful steps in completely opposite directions while being challenged by a 6’10 defender, is totally poised as he lets fly with his floater. It is a difficult shot, but clearly one that he is comfortable taking. It’s not a layup, but he chose to shoot the ball uncontested, and the results speak for themselves.

So, Wade didn’t do anything that will make a top ten list, or make a fan jump out of his seat. You might not call the play “athletic.” But if you consider athleticism to be a sum of quickness, coordination, smarts, spatial awareness and body control, then you can really appreciate a play like the one Wade makes in that clip.

And that’s the end of the hyper-analysis. If you didn’t enjoy that, then check out these dunks! My favorite is at 3:10! I think he could have taken off from the 3 point line! Why is the Russian League dunk contest so much better than the NBA’s?!


2 thoughts on “What is Athleticism?”

  1. Great Point! but everybody knows wade is athletic, maybe if you put paul pierces as an example it would be more clear. Great Writing!…Paul Pierce seems like he is the slower guy in the league, but he is too fast in his right decision making!

    1. Thanks for reading. And you’re right, Pierce would have been a better player to prove my point. His ability to get where he wants on the court always amazes me, and he is far from his “athletic” peak.

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